Eastern all but clinches berth in Big Sky Conference Tournament as the Grizzlies fail in their attempt to clinch at least a share of the league title
No shots in the first half? No problem.
Sophomore guard Glen Dean scored all 17 of his points after intermission -- including a go-ahead three-pointer with 55 seconds left in overtime -- to propel the Eastern Washington University men's basketball team to a 59-55 victory over Montana Saturday (Feb. 26) Big Sky Conference men's basketball game at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.
"Wow -- I was so happy for our players," said Eastern head coach Kirk Earlywine. "They showed a tremendous amount of resolve to win that game."
Seeking one of six berths in the Big Sky Conference Tournament, the victory itself all but clinched a post-season playoff berth for the Eagles, who can still finish as high as fifth in the league standings. Eastern is now 9-19 overall and 6-9 in the league.
Later Saturday night, Weber State eliminated Sacramento State from contention with a 73-70 win, and inched EWU closer to a berth. Only a potential three-way tie between EWU, Idaho State and Montana State at 6-10 could keep the Eagles home. The Eagles end the regular season on the road at Weber State next Wednesday (March 2). Depending on final placings, the Eagles could open the playoffs at one of four teams -- Montana, Northern Colorado, Weber State or Northern Arizona.
If it does, Eastern will have clinched its first berth in the Big Sky Conference Tournament in five seasons -- and first under its fourth-year head coach. The first round of the tournament takes place on Saturday, March 5, with the sixth-seeded team playing at the third seed, and No. 5 playing at No. 4. Those winners advance to play the top two finishers, with the regular season champion hosting the semifinals and championship game on March 8 and 9, respectively.
"Obviously, we're really excited," said Earlywine after being mistakenly told that his team had indeed clinched a berth. "Obviously, it's the first time in my tenure that we'll be in the conference tournament and the first time in five years for Eastern, so we're really excited about finally getting that opportunity. But we also understand we have a game at Weber State on Wednesday night, and rather than try to figure out where our first-round game might be, we'll spend all our time, energy and focus on playing a very talented Weber State team on the road."
The win over UM snapped a four-game losing streak for the Eagles, who had lost their last three games after leading at halftime and owning second-half leads of at least 10 points in two of them. The Eagles did it by holding Montana to just 55 total shots and 40 percent shooting from the floor, and out-rebounding the Grizzlies 36-27.
"We told our guys that to win this game we were going to have to be willing to grind on both ends of the floor," said Earlywine. "If we were not willing to do that -- and not tough enough mentally to do that -- we were going to get beat. If we were, we would have a chance to win the game."
Dean didn't even attempt a shot in the first half, but finished 6-of-8 from the field and made all three of his shots from behind the arc. He also had five assists, three steals and four rebounds.
"We saw a big step in the development of Glen Dean against Montana," said Earlywine of his point guard, who had seven of EWU's 14 turnovers on Thursday (Feb. 24) in a 60-56 loss to Montana State. "He played his worst game of the year against Montana State, but he did so in trying really hard. He took too much on his shoulders and felt pressure to make all the plays.
"Some nights we need Glen to take shots and score points, and other nights we need him to run our team," the fourth-year EWU head coach continued. "That is a very difficult thing for a young player to learn. Glen was spot on against Montana as to when to shoot it, when not to, when to run our team and when to get the ball to the post. I thought he was outstanding."
Forward Cliff Ederaine added 14 points and six rebounds, and junior guard Cliff Colimon had 13 points and a career-high seven rebounds. Laron Griffin chipped in five points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots, and had a victory-clinching dunk with six seconds to play.
Montana, meanwhile, failed in its first try to wrap-up at least a tie for the league title. The Grizzlies are now 12-4 in the league and 20-9 overall. They are battling for the regular season league title with 11-3 Northern Colorado and 11-4 Weber State.
Eastern held 6-foot-11 center Brian Qvale to just 12 points and five rebounds, and guard Will Cherry finished with just five tallies after going scoreless through regulation. Seven-foot Derek Selvig had only six points and two boards to go along with four assists.
"A big focus for us was to try to limit Qvale's field goal attempts and the number of touches he gets," explained Earlywine. "Cherry was kind of second on the list of priorities and we wanted to stop his penetration. And our pressure on Selvig was to affect his passing maybe even more than his three-point shooting. We were able to do all three things."
Eastern started slow, falling behind 8-0 and not scoring in the first 3:49 of the game. The Grizzlies led 16-7 when Eastern went on a 7-0 run to pull within 16-14 at the 4:36 mark. But the Eagles missed four free throws after that and trailed at intermission 22-17.
The Eagles made only 7-of-20 shots from the field for 35 percent, while the Grizzlies cooled off after a hot start to go 10-of-24 for 42 percent. The two teams combined for 3-of-14 shooting from the three-point arc.
Montana led by as many as 10 in the second half, but EWU went on a 17-4 run to take a 44-41 advantage with 2:43 left on a layup by Dean. He scored 10 of EWU's last 11 points in the run.
After Montana tied it, Dean's basket gave Eastern a two-point lead with 52 seconds to play. But Montana knotted the game again with a pair of free throws with 34 seconds left to help send the game into overtime.
In overtime, the game was tied at 53 when Dean hit his trey with 55 seconds to play. A Montana basket with nine seconds left cut the lead to a single point, but EWU broke the press by the Grizzlies and Dean assisted Griffin on a fast-break dunk. Griffin was fouled and shaken up on the play, but Ederaine made the free throw in his place to give EWU an insurmountable four-point lead.